From the archives: Adaptations

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Watchmaker, watchmaker, make me a watch

Tuesday, 20 February 2007 — 12:40am | Adaptations, Comics, Film

Riddle me this: It’s December 1941 in Casablanca. What time is it in New York?

In the famous opening passage of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams describes the human species as “so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” In this way, I am only human. I have worn digital watches all my life. I cannot live without one. It’s easy to tell when I’m fidgeting, because I check the time compulsively. As far as I am able to remember, on only two or three occasions have I been without a digital watch for more than a day, and on every one of those occasions, I panicked like an abandoned child lost on a San Francisco pier (which, come to think of it, is something I’ve also been at least twice). I have probably been without my watch more often than that, but those memories lie safely repressed.

Over the past year or so, my wristwatch dependency has loosened its grip. It still follows me everywhere, and I am still disoriented without it, but I replaced the strap a year ago and never got used to it. It wasn’t because the strap was uncomfortable; it was because I took my watch off with increasing frequency, either to time my own speeches or to permit the unobstructed handling of keyboards (both QWERTY and black-and-white), and never got so accustomed to the strap that I would be at a loss without it. But in any and all circumstances, my watch was never far.

I find that it is just as vital to know when you are as it is to know where you are, if not more so. If you are lost in space, you can find your way out, or you can stay in that spot, and develop a plan from the inferred state of your observed environment. Not so with time – certainly not here, where the winter days are but a few days in length, and the moon and stars lay hidden.

My model of choice has traditionally been the Casio Databank DB35H, mostly because I got very accustomed to its interface, feature set and display after years of use in elementary school; the segment layout is easy to read and familiar to me. It has evolved over several incarnations, and the one I purchased in what must have been 1999 or thereabouts had electroluminescent backlighting, which my first one did not, though it too has had its features extended in the latest revision. That said, given that I don’t really use the databank features, I’m open to superior alternatives like this Waveceptor model. At the same time, my current model suits my needs just fine, and I see no reason to leave it for another. Maybe an obsession with time is born of a desire for stasis and a fifty-metre resistance to change.

After roughly eight years of long service – perhaps longer, as I do not recall with the utmost precision – my battery died last week. For some reason, I don’t remember this happening before. The technical specifications for the latest incarnation of this model estimate a battery life of two years, which simply can’t be right. Perhaps my extensive use of the stopwatch features accelerated its demise. Or perhaps it was nothing more than any old battery expiring of natural causes.

I was at the university when time abruptly decided to stop, so at first opportunity, I went to the Bookstore to buy a replacement cell. Then I realized I was uncertain what battery I required, so I borrowed a screwdriver from the staff and opened up my watch on a counter. As it was already open, I decided to purchase a battery and perform the replacement myself then and there. I’d never been in the guts of one of my own watches before, so this was an autodidactic experience from the get-go. The battery housing was a veritable fortress, and tinkering about in its innards was a dextrous exercise ripe for eliciting a calm eddy of introspection, even if the device was only a digital timing implement and nothing that required me to meddle with mechanics and grapple with gears.

But irrespective of the absence of moving parts, disassembling and reassembling an electronic device and voiding its associated warranties is something I recommend everybody do at least once in their lives. Changing a lousy 3-volt lithium disc may be no big deal to those of my peers who spent their childhoods overclocking their CPUs, coiling solenoids for electric motors, or downloading instructions for building cherry-bombs from a nascent, textual Internet (and actually following them, to the chagrin of the junior-high caretakers); to them, it must seem no greater a task than the humdrum routine of replacing a lightbulb. However, I happen to be a Software Guy, a hands-off theoretician comfortable in his bubble of machine-independent algorithms afloat in the soapy bathwater of Platonic, Turing-computable ideal forms. For me, playing with little springs and unscrewing little screws and jumpstarting circuits with unfolded staples delivers a welcome pretence of handymanliness. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.

In a timely coincidence, on that very same day I read about Zack Snyder’s plans for the Watchmen film.

Anyone who has been following my blog for reasonably long knows that of all the movies presently in development, this is probably the one I care about the most. More than the last three Harry Potters. More than His Dark Materials, which actually seems to be coming along very well from a design standpoint, though the jury’s obviously out on the script and will remain that way until the opening day of The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights, if they’re releasing it under that title elsewhere). Maybe even more than Indiana Jones and the Spanish Inquisition or whatever Lucasian premise it is we’re not expecting. I do not exaggerate when I say that Watchmen is the Lord of the Rings of comic books, and it’s imperative that it’s done right. I’ve seen it pass from Aronofsky to Greengrass to Snyder, and 300 will hopefully give us a good indication of whether or not Snyder knows how to strike the right balance between aesthetic special effects and storytelling mojo.

All signs are good so far. Everything he says about the direction in which he’ll take the film is exactly as it should be; it’s just a matter of whether it can be done. For one thing, setting it in 1985 as a period piece is absolutely the right choice, if not a necessary one. Everything in the story revolves around the binaristic politics of the Cold War era, and the quest for a third way, a way to undo the Gordian knot. The organizing symbol of Doomsday Clock ticking down to midnight, and all of its consequent thematic material – Dr. Manhattan’s totalizing and reductivist perception of time, relativity’s coming of age with the ushering in of atomic physics, or the temporal suspension of the apocalypse – only resonate the way they do because of a very specific milieu that we now consider historical.

If you look at the James Bond franchise, observe what a paucity of truly consequential political storytelling there was in the Pierce Brosnan era, in spite of the fact that they had possibly the very best actor in the “debonair gentleman Bond” mould at their disposal. Goldeneye is by far the best, and it’s fundamentally a Cold War film; in the other three, Bond was a fish out of water, though things started getting interesting again in the deliberately comical Die Another Day. What was compelling about Casino Royale, from an adaptation standpoint, was how the writers managed to graft a Cold War story into the immediate “post-9/11” (post-baccarat?) present, to give a media cliché another whack on the head. I’ve always thought that the Bond franchise should be grounded in Fleming’s day instead of evolving with our present technology and geopolitical climate, but Casino Royale somehow achieved precisely that effect without moving an inch away from 2006.

It worked for Bond, and I ate my words, but it would never work for Watchmen. Too much of its backdrop depends on the relative parity that exists between two well-defined state superpowers at the zenith of an arms race, and how the iconography of the American superhero grew out of a very specific ideological landscape particular to an era where the theoretical band-aid solution to all matters of military prowess was more atomic power. While I haven’t paid much attention to how the comic-book superhero has fared against terrorists and urban guerrilla warfare in the twenty-first century, I imagine our situation is somewhat different.

But for now, let’s hope that 300 is a good film and a glorious financial success. It will keep the suits off Snyder’s back. Hopefully this time, Watchmen will motor through the production pipeline and come to the silver screen without too many complications; last time around, they only got as far as putting up a teaser website. I’d hate the job to be rushed, but I’m an impatient fellow, and the clock is ticking.

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Of affairs and hockey clubs infernal

Sunday, 8 October 2006 — 12:50am | Adaptations, Film, Full reviews

So while I was watching Calgary’s victorious home opener tonight, a few conveniently placed intermissions and commercial breaks permitted me to regale the resident kid brother with storied knickknacks of the franchise’s history.

The exercise demonstrated, once again, that one of the best ways to notice new things about a story is to tell it. Here’s tonight’s curiosity: isn’t it odd that at the team’s inception, they christened it the Atlanta Flames? Were they proud of Union soldiers burning their city to the ground – or did they, frankly, not give a damn?

[Edit: According to these guys, that was a very good guess.]

Insert clever transition here.

It’s a strange experience to watch a cinematic remake immediately after the original film. It is not unlike reading a book right before you see its adaptation. When it comes to books, I know that for some people, it’s hardly ever a pleasant experience: they get all worked up about adaptation issues and never manage to get over them. For me, there is usually something unsettling that results from how the absences and changes are just as visible as what actually ends up on the screen, but this is typically outweighed by my attention to the use of film language in negotiating the inevitable gulfs. See my piece on The Phantom of the Opera for details.

Remakes, however, are a different matter. I think we often have a tendency to think of them as “new versions” of a story rather than “adaptations” in the same sense as books and stage plays. Gus Van Sant’s Psycho aside, our expectations typically extend as far as a reimagining of the holistic story and characters, and not shot-for-shot, plot-for-plot replication.

So it’s delightful when Naomi Watts steals an apple and Adrien Brody carries her down a vine in Peter Jackson’s King Kong, and it’s especially entertaining to us film nerds when the original film is hypodiegetically embedded in Jack Black’s film shoot on the ship; and then there’s the spider sequence, which is (oddly enough) a homage to a scene explicitly not in the original; but we see these as luxuries, and we could have done without them just the same.

That brings us to this weekend’s big release, The Departed.

A brief primer for those of you who don’t keep up with such things, and expect me to do it for you: Scorsese’s latest film is a remake of a 2002 Hong Kong cop thriller, Infernal Affairs, which quickly became Hong Kong cinema’s biggest phenomenon this decade not involving the farcical antics of Stephen Chow. The premise is deceptively simple: a police spy embedded in a triad (Tony Leung or, if you prefer, Leonardo DiCaprio) and a triad spy embedded in the police department (Andy Lau or, if you prefer, Matt Damon) attempt to fish each other out in a meticulous demonstration of what game theorists refer to as a simultaneous game of incomplete information.

If you haven’t seen Infernal Affairs, I highly recommend that you do. I revisited it last night, heeding a warning from a fellow film buff that it doesn’t hold up as well on a second viewing, only to discover that – while the shock value is gone, and there are two or three leaps of logic that arguably qualify as plot holes – the film is every bit as intricate as I remembered on the levels of direction, editing, performance and general craftsmanship.

A wise choice, then, for Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan to adhere very, very closely to the sequence of actions in the original. Sure, the locales and actors are different, a few supporting characters are split and merged, and I’m told there are elements from the two sequels that emerged within a year of the original’s release. (Mark Wahlberg’s character is allegedly grafted from Infernal Affairs III.) I don’t want to spoil anything, but stack one film atop the other, and they mesh in an alignment I’d even call homomorphic.

But because the two films are so similar, and differ primarily in execution, I do feel compelled to compare them. I think my renewed familiarity with Infernal Affairs tempered my enjoyment of The Departed somewhat, and I suspect the latter deserves a second chance on a clean slate. I highly recommend them both, but neither one is free of imperfections. In that sense, I almost find that one complements the other.

Here’s what The Departed does better: onscreen violence, cinematography, verbal humour, the exchange of contraband, Jack Nicholson, clever visual motifs (I’m thinking of the final shot in particular), the budget, Catholicism, spoonfeeding the audience every step of the way to flesh out the motivations so nobody is left questioning why X knows/trusts/kills Y.

Here’s what Infernal Affairs does better: offscreen violence, editing, pacing of the opening act, sting operations, Morse Code, Buddhism, not spoonfeeding the audience every step of the way to beat it over the head with clues and motivations until it resonates with the guest appearance of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”.

Draw: stellar lead performances, use of cellular telephones, plot holes.

On balance, I prefer the original. I’ll concede that it is sometimes too subtle for its own good, just as The Departed is a bit heavy-handed when it comes to trying to explain everything (and still falling short in completely new ways). It doesn’t wave clues in your face like its American sibling, but it does indulge in the occasional redundant flashback to slap you twice with a revelation after it has been made. The two films tell the story from opposite directions, and different problems surface.

What The Departed doesn’t preserve about Infernal Affairs is its acute sense of perspective.

One of the core principles of film language is that while the audience is receiving visual data in a blinking rectangle, that does not mean films inherently work in a third-person objective point of view. Framing, blocking, the sequential ordering and timing of reaction shots – all of these elements contribute to a sense of omniscience and empathy, leading us inside a character’s point of view even as we see her face. Hitchcock played with this to no end. Hell, Scorsese plays with this to no end… just not up to his usual standard here.

It’s almost certainly an editing issue. There’s a big moment in both films that I won’t spoil, but it involves, er, gravity. In Infernal Affairs, it happens behind Tony Leung as he walks towards the camera, and it’s as much a punch in the gut for us as it is for him. (It says something that it still worked the second time through the film, even though I saw it coming.) In The Departed, the audience sees what happens long before Leonardo DiCaprio’s character; the eye level contributes to this, too. Something about it just doesn’t work: the timing and cutting feel off.

The Departed consistently opts for the visceral over what makes the most sense, perspectivally speaking. Mind you, Scorsese is still a master of the visceral; but that doesn’t always fit, especially in a film built on a concept that is all about the limited perspectives of the main characters progressing in blind, meandering baby steps.

Watch them both, though. I can’t think of a better exercise to teach yourself about the differing conventions and values of Hong Kong and American cinema, even if you presume that you’re already familiar with one or the other.

(The likely scenario is that you’ll only manage to see The Departed, which is playing in “theatres everywhere”, while Infernal Affairs is not. In that case, enjoy the element of surprise. I think that may have been missing in my experience, as there is very little in the Gotcha Department that Infernal Affairs doesn’t already do.)

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Like eagles on pogo sticks

Thursday, 13 July 2006 — 6:31pm | Adaptations, Film, Video games

The latest GameSpot Rumor Control takes on a post at The Movie Center suggesting that Tim Burton has, on his lap, the script to a film adaptation of Grim Fandango.

It’s a whisper of a rumour, with almost no ancillary evidence to back it up, but even if it turned out to be completely false, I would remain enheartened that somebody out there shares the same crazy fanboy fantasy.

Grim Fandango is my dream film adaptation. I have devoted a lot of thought as to how I might film it myself, should I ever acquire the skill or the budget to do so, never mind the rights, and it was long ago that I came to the conclusion that it must be done in stop-motion. There is no other way. And – as I have alluded to before – when I saw the designs for the underworld in Corpse Bride, the same convergence of a smoky jazz-beat atmosphere and the calavera figures of the Mexican Day of the Dead as in Tim Schafer’s seminal masterpiece, it was clear to the point of total conviction: a Grim Fandango film should look like that.

For those of you not in the know (as I have realized that those unfamiliar with PC games are really unfamiliar with the recesses of its history, given the short shelf-life of anything that isn’t a blockbuster), Grim Fandango is, in my professional opinion, the greatest masterwork of interactive entertainment in the domains of script, story and artistic concept. If you look at the camp that continues to insist that the nondeterminism of the medium precludes it from being considered “art” (here’s looking at you, Roger Ebert – and do get well soon), I am willing to bet you that none of them have even heard of it. This is the one game I can name that is, beyond any doubt, literature.

Released in 1998, it was the last hurrah of the LucasArts adventure (cf. the Monkey Island series, Day of the Tentacle and Sam & Max Hit the Road), the paragon of the genre and at the same time its epitaph. This was the same year that the PC first-person shooter reached maturity with Half-Life, and real-time strategy hit its stride with its own instant classic, StarCraft, so it’s no wonder that linear storytelling driven by dialogue branches and item-based puzzles fell out of vogue.

For all the attention to craftsmanship that branching dialogue is receiving again – consider Bioware’s experiments in using conversation as a concrete, outcome-affecting form of action in games such as Knights of the Old Republic – nothing comes close to the narrative design in Fandango.

In one sequence, a woman rambles on about her sordid childhood while it is your task to pretend to listen, and try to get a word in edgewise and convince her to hand over a tool you require to progress. In another, you improvise beat poetry at a club on open mic night. The range of responses available to you in a conversation is often itself the punch line.

A few months ago, I played through the whole adventure again over the course of a weekend. Thanks to its painterly pre-rendered backgrounds, the graphics have not suffered from too much aging. In the game’s final sequence, there is a haunting shot of a vintage automobile parked at the foot of a flowery meadow, a greenhouse in the distance. See, in the Land of the Dead, plants are a symbol of the final death in the afterlife.

Whenever I start talking about this game, I can’t help but get carried away. I should stop. Find it and play it, and then you’ll know what I’m talking about. Some home entertainment stores sell old PC games in jewel cases for ten-dollar bargains. I also have a copy.

I had a point in there somewhere, and I hadn’t even mentioned the flaming beavers. If a decent Grim Fandango script has indeed found its way to Tim Burton, and it is being given serious consideration, something is going right. I would be tempted to get Tim Schafer aboard the project, much like how Rodriguez got Frank Miller on the set of Sin City.

Speaking of Frank Miller, you may have heard that one Zack Snyder is currently working on 300, Miller’s graphic novel about Thermopylae. He’d better be worth his salt, because he is now the director attached to Watchmen, which got off the ground again after the modest success of V for Vendetta. Since reading Watchmen a few years ago, I have seen the film project elude Darren Aronofsky, David Hayter and Paul Greengrass, and that’s saying nothing of Terry Gilliam’s aborted concept of doing a twelve-hour twelve-parter from a decade ago. Hopefully Snyder makes it worth the wait; this is another one that needs to be done right.

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An old Cyberian proverb

Wednesday, 14 December 2005 — 5:20pm | Adaptations, Film, Full reviews

And lo, the slacker looked upon the face of deadlines. And it stayed its hand from blogging. And from that day, it was as one dead.

There’s been a lot to say lately – busiest movie month of the year, after all, plus a somewhat amusing election campaign and about an hour a day catching imaginary fish, planting imaginary flowers and arranging imaginary furniture in my other, more rustic life. (By the way, if perchance you have the game and your town’s starting fruit is something other than apples, get ahold of me and we’ll discuss a trade.) Only now am I compelled to post, though what I have to say is closer to the shallow end of the trivia-analysis continuum.

Peter Jackson’s King Kong is a model remake. Never does it entertain pretensions of burying the 1933 original: far from it, Jackson’s film is a loving tribute, in every way made by a cineola for his fellow fans to cherish. It’s not The Lord of the Rings, but then again, he’s working off a story that doesn’t have quite so much meat on the bones, and it shows as soon as the embellished human relationships constructed before we get to Skull Island wear out and fade away. There’s no doubt that the Kong story is one of the Great American Legends and a piece of our cultural history, even speaking as a Canadian – but for all its poignancy, nobody could mistake the story for being materially complex.

But at its core, the new Kong isn’t so much a remake as it is a faithful adaptation of some of the most iconic moments in cinema. Kong rolling the sailors off the log, Kong unhinging the jaws of a tyrannosaur, Kong reeling in the vine that Ann and Jack are descending – it’s all something to behold this day in age when special effects have reached the saturation point where we can take them for granted as reality and direct our attention to how they advance the story. Merian C. Cooper’s original, as dated as the model work looks today, still holds up because of what the animators made the models do. They didn’t just stomp around trampling and devouring – they had mannerisms.

And then there are the overtly tributary moments, as lovably indulgent as Uma Thurman wearing the Bruce Lee track suit in Kill Bill. I don’t want to spoil them all, but at the same time, I can’t let them go unmentioned. When Carl Denham is escaping in the taxicab, he queries his assistant about which actresses are available as an emergency replacement. “Fay is a size four,” he suggests – but alas, he is told Ms. Wray is doing a film over at RKO. Snicker, snicker. Then there’s the scene he films on the ship between Ann and the actor Bruce Baxter (played by Kyle Chandler, who is wholly new to me and at the same time one of the highlights of the movie). It’s note for note the same scene as the one between Fay Wray and Bruce Cabot, down to the way either Bruce turns his head to the right as he mutters, “And I’ve never been on one with a woman before.” And then there’s the Broadway marquee the night Denham opens his show – an exact reproduction.

It’s very much the same approach that Jackson took with his Tolkien adaptation. The source material is not only treated with reverence – it’s taken as historical fact.

There’s no shortage of movies in the past twelve years that have wanted to be the movie that this King Kong is, chief among them The Lost World and Ang Lee’s Hulk, but as recent as bits and pieces of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. A lot of people have likened it to Titanic: a landmark spectacle that obscures a human element that pales in comparison. A fair comparison, sure, but only if we consider on top of it that the Naomi Watts’ take on Ann Darrow and Andy Serkis’ motion-capture performance as Kong make for what I think is clearly one of the great screen romances. In fact, I prefer the relationship between Ann and Kong here to that of the original film. When you see them skate in Central Park, you’ll know what I mean.

But enough praise for now. What I was most interested in going into the movie was how Jackson’s film would address the primitivist, and perhaps even racialistic assumptions inherent to the the 1933 version’s worldview.

To me, the most curious thing about the ’33 Kong was its morally ambiguous position – indeed, its refusal to comment on what to make of Kong’s ultimate demise. Is it a triumph or a tragedy? We’re never told: the Robert Armstrong Carl Denham enunciates the immortal last line as if it were a proud declaration of his own cleverness, tickled by how conveniently the fall of Kong fit the beauty-and-beast theme he had envisioned all along.

The answer to the triumph-or-tragedy question is left to depend on the attitude of the audience. Is it sympathetic with Denham and company? Or does it plead for an absent mercy when Kong, atop the Empire State Building, cowers in self-defense and wishes the airplanes would just go away so he would be left alone (and alive) with his terrified little Ann? Do we applaud when the monster falls – or is man the monster?

The answer is immeasurably complex, and I’m not going to repeat seventy years of film scholarship to establish my own thesis on the matter – at least, not on this particular December evening. But here’s a primer: it is a distinct possibility that the interpretation of the Kong myth has, since its initial release, been completely turned on its head.

King Kong ’33 presumes a chain of command between all living things, an ordering of the world from the barbaric to the civilized. In a sentence, Kong beats dinosaurs, Kong beats hooting and hollering natives, but the civilized man beats Kong, or does he. The sights to behold on Skull Island are, to quote, things “no white man has ever seen.” Denham treats the island and its inhabitants – first the natives, then the creatures – as subjects of entertainment for developed places where entertainment exists.

You can talk all you want about King Kong as purely escapist spectacle (it is) and heck, even one of the greatest films ever made (it is) – but I can’t fathom how it would be possible for anyone to ignore that its presumptions are inherently colonialist. Being a proud son of the colonies myself, I’m not passing judgment – I’m just telling it as it is. At the extreme, King Kong is spoken of as a metaphor for the black man that steals a blonde beauty, and doesn’t discard her as a human sacrifice like those inadequate native-girl offerings. It’s really not at all a stretch.

The damsel-in-distress archetype is colonial discourse, and is reflected in spades in the pulp adventure fiction of the early twentieth century, most prominent among them the stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs. (It’s also deflected in the anti-adventures of Joseph Conrad, which you’ll notice Jamie Bell’s character reading in the Jackson remake.) Back in March I wrote a post about how this comes to the fore in A Princess of Mars, when John Carter travels to the Red Planet and beats back the brutes with the force of compassionate love, which he is capable of and they are not.

Or, to put it in filmic terms – it was beauty killed the beast.

So Kong’s defeat is a triumph to those who see themselves atop a ladder of civilization (or an Empire State Building, for that matter), a position worth defending against the invasive pretenses of an ascending monster. But as a tragedy, the one we sympathize with is Kong, a creature who consistently acts in defense of himself, and in defense of Ann Darrow. The central question, then, is whether or not he has the right to protect Ann so vigourously; whether it is an act of care, or an act of possession. It is, moreover, comparative: how does Kong’s right to Ann compare to that of Bruce Cabot’s Jack Driscoll, who in his initially misogynistic gung-ho masculinity makes him a microcosm of the same beauty-beast dichotomy?

The movie winds up back in New York with Kong a captive, Driscoll a hero and Ann his fiancée. But the last time we see Jack leaves him defeated in much the same way. Nobody really gets the girl, but the girl sure got the ape.

A civil rights movement, a global postcolonial backlash and a Peter Jackson remake later, I posit the modern audience that watches the 1933 King Kong almost invariably errs on the side of tragedy. When Denham announces to his audience that Kong, once a king, comes to the civilized world a captive, there is something deeply ironic about it. Kong cannot be held captive, and he dies on his feet. (Okay, so he dies on his back. But he is on his feet when they shoot him.) In that sense, King Kong is as useful an exposé of primitivist attitudes as it is a celebration, and the work itself tips the balance neither way.

It is the modern sensitivity to the civilized subduing the savage that dominates Jackson’s version, a sensitivity that puts a limit on whether or not it can be done. Observe how the new film differs.

Now the natives aren’t just a scantily-clad ritualistic tribe that lives in huts – they’re snarling, mace-wielding murderer-folk with bad teeth. Like the orcs in The Lord of the Rings, they demand no sympathy because they do not resemble anything like what we would call a human society – they’re clearly monsters, and the sailors have nothing to feel guilty about when they gun them down.

But not so with King Kong. In this one, his love goes requited. (A good thing, too, because nothing takes the taste out of peanut butter like you-know-what.) Maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome – who knows – but the Naomi Watts Ann Darrow is thoroughly sympathetic and thankful for a creature that, by the end of the movie, turns out to be probably the most human character in the story.

Not that it’s an indictment of man, though, because the same change occurs with the new Jack Driscoll as played by Adrien Brody, now no longer such a man’s-man beast-among-men but a meek playwright thrust into romance and adventure quite against his will. And so this film, like its precursor (let’s not even bother acknowledging the 1976 one, which doesn’t fit into this comparative study), refuses to point fingers and say, “He’s a villain.” There are monsters, yes – the now-inhuman native folk, the tyrannosauri, the arachnids from the Legendary Missing Spider Sequence – but no villains to whom we can assign a face.

Denham is still in many ways reprehensible, yes, but he’s far from villainy: as in the original film, he’s more of an architect of circumstantial misfortune. And Jack Black’s delivery of the last line is telling. Unlike Armstrong, he isn’t smug about it. He says it with awe, wonder and perhaps a tinge of regret. It’s like Fortinbras surveying the bloodbath in Elsinore: the observer in the drama, and the audience outside it, are left with a characteristic aftertaste of terror and pity.

Beauty kills the beast, but man doesn’t really rescue the beauty. It’s the hero who dies, simian as he may be.

Great film, and Wellington Santa Claus has delivered a worthy Christmas present once again. I’d feel very comfortable putting the new King Kong next to my generation’s monster classic, Jurassic Park, for reasons that are not solely alphabetical.

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Constant vigilance

Thursday, 15 September 2005 — 12:12pm | Adaptations, Film, Harry Potter, Literature

Keeping in mind that I’m not a stickler for correspondence to source material when it comes to movies adapted from books – relatively speaking, anyhow – I have a few observations to point out regarding the new Goblet of Fire trailer. Like a lot of trailers for big franchise movies that are near enough to release that most of the effects work is done, it shows everything – so if you don’t want to see everything from Hermione’s pink ball gown (yes, it’s pink here and not blue) to Lord Voldemort himself, avert your eyes.

First of all, the tombstone in the graveyard scene has been fixed. Early promotional images such as this one revealed an egregious error – that is, the presumption that Tom Marvolo Riddle’s dead father was also named Tom Marvolo Riddle, which was from the outset more improbable than the transfiguration of a pair of missiles into a sperm whale and a bowl of petunias, and then flatly contradicted by events critical to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Near the end of this trailer there are a few shots from the resurrection in the graveyard (like I said, it shows everything), and the inscription has been corrected.

Much more irritating than anything else – and I suspect this will end up being my greatest annoyance with the finished product when I see it in November – is Dumbledore’s butchered pronunciation of “Beauxbatons”, which is similar to how they pronounce “Baton Rouge” in the drawl of the former Confederate states. Seriously, William the Conqueror died for this? Oh well – I suppose they already neglected to drop the silent T in “Voldemort”, so all bets are off. Now we’ll just have to deal with the premise that a Bulgarian kid learns how to enunciate Hermione’s name but the only one You-Know-Who ever feared stumbles over his French after a century of practice. What would really be upsetting is if the francophone characters do the same.

Like Cuaron’s flying Iceman Dementors in The Prisoner of Azkaban, there are a lot of neat visual inventions on display – Mad-Eye Moodyvision, Sirius Black speaking in the form of the embers in the fire instead of a disembodied head (which makes me wonder what will be done if they keep the scene of Umbridge fumbling about for his presence in Phoenix), and the rippling Jumbotron at the Quidditch World Cup, to name a few. I can see plenty of dynamism befitting the scope of the tale, a pulse that was sorely lacking in the Columbus films. Now that we have a pretty clear idea of the look of the film, the big question mark is the pace.

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